Archive | March 2013

Near-life Experiences

Here is another opinion column that I wrote this month for the Shelburne Falls Independent newspaper. In the spirit of Easter, I offer it here!

Over the past few years I have noticed that a popular theme in movies and books is the experience that some people have had in dying and living to tell about it. From these people (real or fictional), we hear about the beckoning light at the end of a tunnel, a great sense of peace swooping in and taking over, a fast rewind of a life and then sometimes a strong physical experience of being sent back to life. As my wife’s Aunt Rena reported, Jesus told her, “Rena, get up out of bed. I am not ready for you!” Or as she said at other times, “He said, ‘Rena, I am not through with you!’”

These near-death or dead and brought-back-to-life stories draw us in because most people would “die” to know what really happens on the other side of life. Whether we believe in life after death, resurrection, reincarnation or if we settle for the earthly wisdom of “dust you are and to dust you shall return,” most of us are fascinated with near-death stories.

I am thinking about all this as my church is walking with other local churches on what we call the “Lenten Way,” which is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) preceding Easter. Lent, among other things, is the time that Christians stop to look at who we really are and what hinders us from living into our best selves. During Lent we practice new ways of being truthful and forgiving of self and others. For many Christians, Easter is the time that we pay less attention to bunny rabbits (but of course who can turn down a chocolate egg?) and more attention to the central story of Christianity, which is the mystery of Jesus, who lived and died and came back to life to tell his students about it.

Actually, one of the interesting things is that Jesus did not really say anything about what happened to him when he died and was brought back to life.  In the Christian scriptures there is nothing about a beckoning light, a review of his life, a welcome home or a push back to earth. Instead, what we hear about in his after-death experience is his instruction to his followers to accept life, his and ours, and to spread love and peace here and now.

That brings me to thinking about how often people do or don’t report “near-life” experiences. Near-life experiences are times when you suddenly find yourself not walking around asleep or numb or dead, but actually alive. Near-life experiences are when you are jolted out of “Is this all there is?” to “This is it!” Near-life experience is not nirvana or heaven because nirvana and heaven, as far as I understand them, are outside daily life as we know it. Near-life experiences are when we find ourselves suddenly closer to life than we have ever been.

Most of us have not brushed close to death and lived to tell about it, which is maybe why we like to hear about these encounters. But all of us have the chance to brush close to life and spread the word. When we do come close to fully and deeply living with all our senses alive, our response more often than not is to be grateful. The mystic Meister Eckhart is reported to have said, “If the only prayer that you say in life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.”

So as we slide into the celestial season of spring and the church season of Eastertide, when suddenly everything that looked dead comes to life, I am pausing, as I believe Jesus paused in his life, to say “thank you” for life. I do not always see life or feel it or fully embrace it, but when I do, I am grateful that we do not have to die to live.

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Belonging

I just started writing a column for our local newspaper in Shelburne Falls; the Shelburne Falls and West County Independent. Here is the most recent one. It was written for our community here but  I hope that it speaks to others as well!  It is called Belonging.

A church friend and I were talking about “the good old days.” Those were the days when church and synagogue pews were filled to overflowing and young people were happy to set aside precious time to participate in a religious youth group. Of course, it is not only the world of faith that has changed, but also family life, social networking, spiritual beliefs, work pressure and economics — you name it. The good old days (putting aside the real question of whether those days were actually good or not) are definitely a thing of the past. What is not clear is where our faith communities are headed. Paul, one of the first visionaries of the first century Christian communities, was well aware of the problems of forward looking when he said something like “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.”

If we cannot see the future without squinting, it might be more helpful to stick to the moment. In this moment, one thing that gives me hope is that there is a shift right now in many churches (and I believe that this is true for other faiths as well) in the expectations that churches have for people who are peering through the stained glass windows and considering entering. The expectation for some churches used to be something like this: If you want to be welcomed in, you must believe what we believe. Once you demonstrate your belief, then we will teach you to behave the way that we behave. And then, when you accomplish this task, you might actually belong!

Now that three-point process is flipping around. The emphasis is shifting from believe, behave and belong to belong, behave and believe. Coming into a church or other community of faith still requires courage — maybe even more so in our age when the failures of religious groups to live up to our espoused values are making headline news. So when a visitor dares to come to visit a house of worship, the response at the door is not a question like “do you believe what we believe?” but more often a statement like “welcome stranger, there is a place for you here.” The assumption is that the visitor belongs, and when you belong, you get to fully participate in the party. You see how people are behaving around you and you learn the stories that are the foundation for the group. Over time, sometimes a long time, you discern if people are walking the walk, not just talking the talk of their faith. If the behaviors match the welcome, then what happens to many people is that they begin to believe, or to trust, that something good is happening — in them, in their extended community and in the world.

I don’t think that this change is just a fad. If anything, this reversal is going back to the roots of many religions. Most ancient religions, my Christian faith included, began with a group of people uniting around something or someone that had changed their lives. The people belonged together because they all loved their teacher or the teachings. Then, over time, the people learned how to behave in the way that their spiritual teacher behaved. And when that happened, they started to believe and trust that something good was happening.

It is true: I am part of a movement that is trying to bring back the good old days. Not the days when churches were busting at the seams, but farther back, when people gathered to practice what it meant to be deeply in love. Yes, like all human ventures, religious groups fail at this a lot of the time. What starts out as love can becomes rigid, or even worse, hurtful. Then, thank goodness, the whistle blowers and the prophets start shouting and there is an opportunity to revive the precious core of truth that started the whole venture. I believe that this is where we are at this moment in time. We are being summoned back to our core. We are acknowledging how far we have strayed from the deep truths that uphold religion and we are being given a chance to start again. This time we are starting not with belief but with belonging, which is another word for love.

That is a start that I am excited to be part of here in Shelburne Falls. Welcome stranger; there is a place for you here.